The meaning of a Hizbullah victory
By Michael Young -Daily Star staff
Thursday, July 20, 2006
As Israel pursues its systematic dismemberment of predominantly Shiite areas in Lebanon, and Shiite lives, one question remains: What happens if Hizbullah emerges from the conflict victorious?
This is no surreptitious appeal for an Israeli victory. Israel's triumphs usually mean the other side - particularly civilians - is brutalized beyond what is acceptable even in the harsh world of international relations. Only a week into the latest Israeli onslaught on Lebanon, the third in 13 years, Lebanon is reeling, and much more of this could carry it into a medium-term economic collapse, multiplying the suffering of the present.
No, the reason to pose the question is simpler: A Hizbullah victory, by showing that the party can stand up to Israel, and can do so because it mobilized its armed state within the state without consulting any of its Lebanese political partners, may crack the already frayed Lebanese consensus. When the diverse religious communities decide the problem is that one side has the weapons while the others have nothing but a choice to remain silent, Lebanon will break down, and it could do so violently.
As commentator Sarkis Naoum argued recently, Hizbullah is behaving much like Christian leaders did before the 1975 war. What he probably meant was that it is trying to turn state institutions to its advantage, against the will of the majority, even as the party builds up a parallel security structure to the army. But the Christians could at least argue that they were defending against the armed Palestinian presence. What is Hizbullah's excuse? That the abduction of two Israeli soldiers to secure the release of a handful of Lebanese prisoners was worth billions of dollars in economic losses, a massive humanitarian crisis, and the destruction of an infrastructure the Lebanese have spent years paying for to rebuild?
Arabs high on the taste of armed struggle are delighted with Hizbullah. In Damascus the regime has again deflected attention away from its own bankruptcy by calling out demonstrators in support of Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah. But if Lebanese blood is the price of Arab pride; if the current battle is one not for Lebanese security, as Hizbullah had earlier claimed, but one for the fate of the umma, Arab or Muslim, as Nasrallah declared in his latest speech, then most Lebanese will reject such hubris out of hand.
What is Nasrallah thinking today, as his exhausted coreligionists stumble into schools and public facilities, their lives in shambles? He's probably focused on the political endgame, since the ultimate outcome of his fight with Israel will determine if those same Shiites praise Hizbullah or bury it. Still the most powerful Lebanese politician by virtue of his armed militia, Nasrallah is also the most vulnerable, because he can no longer return to the status quo ante on the Lebanese border - a situation he had worked hard to build after the Israeli withdrawal in 2000. How he is allowed to maneuver between these two realities will determine his fate.
To Nasrallah's advantage, he doesn't need a military victory in order to secure his political resurrection. He needs only to survive with his militia intact and Israel sufficiently bloodied. For the moment, Israel is not playing along. There are some reports that Hizbullah is demoralized. With the Shiite community thrown into disarray, so too has the party's visceral bond with it. However, Israel's claims that it has destroyed 40-50 percent of the militia's capabilities seem exaggerated. If enough international pressure builds up for a cease-fire, Nasrallah must be calculating, then he might be able to turn everything around. Iranian money would finance Shiite reconstruction; he could tell his brethren that they paid a high price, but also preserved their dignity; and, regionally, Hizbullah would be applauded as the best thing that has happened to the Arabs in ages.
That's one scenario. Another is that Nasrallah, unable to recreate what he had before July 12, when the Israeli offensive onslaught began, must now find a new military equation in the South that is sustainable. The deployment of an international force in the border area alongside the Lebanese Army would stand in the way of this. Creation of such a force might be used to persuade Shiites that international guarantees in the South would better protect them than Hizbullah's "defense strategy," which has collapsed ignominiously under Israeli bombs. In such a context, Nasrallah, with hundreds of thousands of Shiites in the streets, would have no choice but to step back and accept normalization, perhaps living to fight another day.
The outcome will be neither here not there. It is unclear what Israel intends to do, beyond break the back of Shiite villagers. If the goal is to degrade Hizbullah's military capability, then more land operations are likely. An invasion would impose national unity around the resistance. However, if the Israelis exit quickly, creating a free-fire zone in the border area so Hizbullah cannot return, in the eyes of the international community this might facilitate the deployment of an expanded United Nations force with the Lebanese Army to the South. The only problem, and a major one, is that Hizbullah would first have to agree to surrender its weapons.
One thing remains most disturbing. In bombing the daylights out of Shiites, while leaving Sunni, Christian and Druze areas mostly unharmed, the Israelis may have created years of sectarian resentment. Nasrallah can play on this to rouse his coreligionists out of their stupor. Look, he might say, where our fellow Lebanese were when the Israelis came after us; they criticized the resistance, and by extension all Shiites. Such thinking might help save Nasrallah's skin, but it could push Lebanon over the brink.
Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR.